From Sleep to Sleepless – Circadian Rhythms & Chinese Medicine

BalanceSleep, Uncategorized

I am consistently amazed by how much I see a new research article either verifying, or re-affirming what traditional medicine has been telling us for thousands of years. Recently I read an article on the circadian rhythm, or the “body’s internal clock”, which reminded me of the Diurnal Qi cycle in Traditional Chinese Medicine.

Firstly, an overview of the circadian rhythm in the scientific model for those who aren’t aware.

There two important hormones we should mention here are Serotonin and Melatonin. What are these hormones? Well….. ever wondered why you feel “energised” in the morning (we are supposed to feel awake without the morning coffee)……well as it turns out, that “awakeness” is related to serotonin. When the sun comes up in the morning, a set of neurons in the Hypothalamus area, specifically the suprachiasmaticus nucleus (SCN), detects light entering the retina (even when the eyes are closed, certain amounts of light penetrates those thin translucent lids)….. neurons get activated…..and just like a coal furnace, it starts “firing up” the production of serotonin. This keeps us alert and feeling good ALL DAY.
It’s not until the sunset edges onto the horizon, that we start to experience the “Melatonin and Serotonin sea saw”.

Circadian Rhythms

As the darkness increases, the neurons involved with serotonin become less stimulated, to a point where there is no light (in natural circumstances). This causes a shift…… Where serotonin peaked during the day hours, it has now begun its decent downward into the trough of a melatonin wave, which is now peaking. The melatonin levels begin to rise, increasing the feeling of tiredness, to the point of where we eventually feel SO TIRED…..we fall asleep. This is why using bright computer screens and smartphones at night is such a hot topic at the moment. It directly affects the way serotonin and melatonin work with each other, therefore they affect HOW and WHEN you feel tired or awake.

This system, on a basic level, is what manages the circadian rhythm…..it’s the “master clock” of the body, streamlining physiological process, creating healthy rhythms of wakefulness and sleepiness. And not only healthy rhythms……healthy feelings! If your serotonin is functioning well, you are feeling good enough to face work and all the ups and downs it brings with a smile on your face.

So what has all this got to do with the Diurnal Qi cycle in Chinese Medicine?
Well as it turns out…….there are other, “subsets” of clocks……. Other clocks? What are you talking about?
Well, as science would have it. The liver has one, the spleen, even individual cells have a unique “clock” that regulates the timing of how and when organs function metabolically.
Thousands of years ago however, Traditional Chinese Medicine already had a system for the ebb and flow of different organs at different times. It looks like this.
Insert picture
TCM Clock
The diurnal qi cycle is a system that we learn in our Acupuncture degree. Chinese Medicine has a vast number of theories, such as those that relate to Acupuncture Meridians, Acupuncture Points, Trigger Point Therapy (The activation of twitch responses at tender or painful muscles), How the organs relate to emotions, Herbal medicine and dietetics to name but a few. One of the theories (the one we are talking about) relates to how the different organs of the body functions at different times of the Day……. the diurnal qi cycle.

So what’s this all about? Well, ever wondered why you feel hungry when you wake up? Well naturally, you should normally feel hungry between 7am and 9am. This is usually when we feel hungry right? Looking at the above picture, in the diurnal qi cycle, 7am – 9am is the natural time of day for the Stomach to be at its optimal function. The reason this is important is because we are more likely to get optimal digestive efficiency at this time. What’s another time of day we are likely to feel a little tired? Lunchtime. Well at the time of 11am – 1pm it is heart time. During heart time is a good time to slow down, possibly even have a nap. When we slow down, we give all the blood that is circulating through the limbs and muscles, a chance to focus in on nourishing the heart. The Spanish had it right all along!

But….going back to the scientific modal of the circadian rhythm……even though subsets of clocks, tend to function under the overall master clock system directed by the brain (SCN), they can begin to function independently, effecting the “master” clock. For example, waking at 1am in the morning after sleeping for 3 hours, from the horror movie you watched, which is giving you nightmares, you start to feel hungry and eat….. Do you feel awake now? YES! Well now your stomach is awake and when is its natural peak time? 7am – 9am…. your whole circadian rhythm is beginning to show a split personality disorder! The TV or mobile phone gives the bright light….. Neurons begin firing up the production of serotonin, which all disrupts your circadian rhythm and makes your melatonin peak delay so that your feeling more drowsy in the daytime instead of night time when you should be going to bed.

So how can we use this information to improve our sleep quality? The main points to take from this are to:

• Gradually decrease your sources of un-natural light once the sun goes down
• Don’t eat really late at night. It disrupts your body clock
• Sleep in a room that is dark, blocking any light coming in through the windows etc.
• Consider decreasing or structuring your TV to earlier shows
• Wake up earlier to get increased light exposure for the production of serotonin
• Eat a good breakfast in the morning to help those other body clocks synchronise with the master clock

Obviously there can be many other factors influencing sleep which sometimes need to be considered, but this is a good start!
So, in returning to the overall picture, we can see evidence is proving right now what the traditional doctors and clinicians were aware of thousands of years ago. This Awareness of subtle physiological processes is not superior to one or another type of medicine, it only emphasises the similarities and my wonderment of both systems. Both traditional and western medicine have both come about very similar findings, only that it was arrived at using totally different methods.

Thanks for reading.

Balance Acupuncture and Wellness Centre

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What’s Stress All About?

BalanceEmotional health and Stress

Having moved to Tasmania from Darwin, Northern Territory some 6 months ago, I’ve got mixed notions on stress and how it affects people in Tasmania.
One of my first experiences of someone else’s “stress”, was in the first few weeks of arriving to Hobart. It somehow appears my slow driving caused some frustration to another driver, and in return for my “safety”, I received a strong, outstretched, fully extended arm and an intensely raised middle finger pointing to the heavens…….God help me I thought.
It reminded me of the “road rage” terminology, which I originally learned from the road rage capital of Australia, Gold Coast Queensland, in my teenage years. Although, when I say stress, I guess in this instance I’m talking about someone’s anger at wanting to ring another driver’s neck, so as not to be late for the 9-5 job that he/she “hates”.
It seems anger follows anger….although isn’t it “better out then in”? What’s that saying “Therapy is nice….but screaming f*#k at the top of your lungs for 10 seconds, is a lot faster and cheaper”……
Now I’m definitely not prescribing the above technique, and if you do, be sure no children are close by and that your neck has been fully stretched, to avoid passing on scripts to children and adding neck injuries to a list of crappy things that have happened in the day, along with the slow driver that made you late for work.
Being an Acupuncture Practitioner and not a psychologist, I can’t recommend the screaming technique outlined above, because there are other ways to address the issue.
You see in Chinese Medicine stress, anger, frustration, irritation, itching, headaches and sometimes ringing in the ears and the Liver are ALL related.

In stress, it’s the Liver that is somehow not “relaxed” or not running smoothly. It’s the Liver that is responsible for the smooth circulation of your daily energy levels and blood circulation. And this somewhat closely aligns with the western medical model, because it’s the liver that cleans the blood, stores glucose and produces bile for the Gall bladder to store. And what happens if your Glucose metabolism and bile secretions aren’t running effectively? Glucose gives you energy and Bile helps break down your fats for energy also, so we have an energy problem…..
If we don’t have enough energy to deal with daily problems, work and family problems, we are more likely to get stressed as it overwhelms us.
So obviously, being slightly biased, I choose principles associated to Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine over to the screaming technique, as the anger is usually a symptom of a root cause or issue, such as the unbalanced functioning of the liver or associated problems.
Just a different perspective to consider….others know the benefit of meditation, exercise, qi gong, tai chi, stretching, dancing……and some even might use moderates amount of drinking to reduce stress. And it’s really interesting to see how different people manage their stress……..
How do you manage your stress in Tasmania? What usually “gets to you” you in daily life and how do you deal with it? I would love to see some comments if you have a few seconds to join in on the conversation.
Thanks for reading.
Balance Acupuncture & Wellness Centre

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